Ever since Ford introduced the 428 Cobra Jet to the Mustang lineup in April 1968, the previous top-of-the-line big-block-the 390GT-has been relegated to a mediocre reputation. To illustrate the point, consider a personal story from 1981, during one of my early experiences at the local bracket drags. Among the participants was a '69 Mach 1 sporting 428 emblems on the hoodscoop and a chrome valve-covered FE underhood. Even at this time, in the infancy of the Mustang hobby, a crowd gathered around when the hood was popped on the tough looking ponycar and listened while the owner lamented the poor performance of his Cobra Jet. At 16 years of age, yours truly was just learning the ropes of Mustangdom and didn't recognize the obvious, yet my buddy, Bryan Weeks, another pimply faced teen who was considerably ahead of the curve, broke the news. Bryan had perused the VIN, the log-style exhausts, and the low-rise iron intake, and then speculated aloud that the disappointing performance wasn't due to an underachieving 428 at all, but rather the presence of the S-code 390.
Unknown and unimportant now is whether the owner had known the 390 story all along and was playing big shot with a set of 428 emblems. Regardless, the bubble was burst, and the 390's rep as a runner-up was reinforced to a small handful of enthusiasts on this given day.
Of course, 1969 was the last year of a truly epic decade for the American automobile. Design studios had dreamt up some of the slickest silhouettes of the century, engineering departments were busy cramming bigger cubes into small packages, and the musclecar craze that began around 1964 was approaching its zenith. Knowledgeable enthusiasts realize the 390GT wasn't only overshadowed by the recently introduced 428CJ, it was also upstaged by the new Boss 429, which, on paper, was the most impressive powerplant between the shock towers of a production Mustang. Yet to discount the 390GT as an underachiever is a failure to recognize the escalating horsepower wars of the musclecar era, a phenomenon that made yesterday's premier powerplants obsolete almost overnight.
Consider Hot Rod magazine's comments on the 390GT during its inaugural shakedown in a '66 Fairlane (Mar. '66). The magazine wasn't at all put off by the big FE's bone-stock 15.7 second e.t. and made the following comments after a day of dragstrip thrashing: "Acknowledging the fact that this wasn't the hottest time ever turned didn't dampen our enthusiasm because we had the class' top time and low e.t. for the day."
The truth is, the 390GT was competitive in the era of its inception and shouldn't be discredited for being superseded any more than a Hi-Po 289 would be for being outgunned by a Boss 302.
At this point, we're done defending the honor of the 390GT, for Dave Elbert's '69 SportsRoof champions the cause as no words could justly do. We were smitten from the second we spied the rare GT at the '05 Mustang Roundup in Bellevue, Washington, though it took another year before owner and photographer could meet for the spread you see here.
Dave's car is gorgeous, with a desirable and unusual combination of options and colors that makes one forget there was anything built with more brute power. You already know this one's packing the 390GT powerplant underhood: in this case, channeling a stock-rated 320 hp to a C6 automatic and 3.00-geared 9-inch rearend. The mechanicals are all stock save for the carburetor, where a CJ service replacement 735-cfm Holley sits in place of the original. Interestingly, Dave learned from Pony Carburetors' Jon Enyeart that '69 390GTs received a 605-cfm Autolite 4300 four-barrel as opposed to the 600-cfm Holley used on '66-'68s. Regardless, Dave tells us the car has plenty of power for his needs. Since he's not a street rat or drag racer, we believe him.
In its swan song year of production, the 390GT was part of a broad spectrum of Mustang powerplants, seemingly offering something for every niche customer. At 320 hp, the 390 slotted right between the 290-horse four-barrel 351 Windsor and the 335hp 428CJ, though by 1970, a new 300-horse four-barrel 351 Cleveland would cover all middle ground.
The aesthetic appeal of this '69 goes beyond the core of its SportsRoof bodywork, with obvious enhancements coming from the factory Candyapple Red topcoat and GT Equipment Group. We love Mach 1s as much as the next guy, but the rarity of the GT means its unique look holds a certain charm all its own. According to Kevin Marti's tome, Mustang... by the Numbers, a staggering 72,458 Mach 1s were built in 1969 compared to 4,084 GT SportsRoofs and 6,694 GTs of all body styles. Likewise, 428CJ Mustangs outnumbered 390GTs on the order of 3 to 2, so other than ultimate bench-racing bragging rights, Dave has several low production statistics to be proud of.
The GT Equipment Group for the '69 was different than previous years, most notably due to the absence of foglights or body emblems. Never-theless, the package was still a winner with its rocker stripes, pop-open gas cap, and Styled Steel wheels, as well as a couple of new items: a hoodscoop and hood pins. Not to be forgotten is the special handling package that included heavy-duty springs, shocks, and a front sway bar, making GTs more than an appearance option.
Dave admits that when he stumbled onto this particular car in 2001, he was looking for a 428-powered machine, but he easily fell for the GT SportsRoof due to its obvious appeal. A lower entry fee was also a welcome reality, as the perceived biggest and best always comes at considerable cost.
It's likely we'd have made the same decision given the choice, and in a way, we did: by awarding Mustang Monthly's Editor's Choice award to Dave and his GT at the '06 Mustang Roundup. Against hundreds of other cars, some of higher musclecar repute, this one held its head high and aptly defended the honor of the first big-block ever fitted to the Mustang.